I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’m certainly not one of those who wants to rebel against the central drive of the coronavirus measures. I want to help stop the spread of transmission as much as most folk. But it’s hard to look at the government’s restrictions on the hospitality sector without thinking there’s some bigger agenda at work here. We’re being deterred from going to pubs for our own good, but is this part of a wider public health campaign, rather than part of the war against covid?

pub cheers

If 2021 has taught us anything, it’s that — contrary to Margaret Thatcher’s assertion — there is such a thing as society. The way communities have come together this year has been outstanding. I think those connections were always there, but it’s taken a crisis to throw the spotlight on them.

There are plenty of people asking why it’s okay for pubs to open for substantial meals, but not just for drinks. The Cabinet Office policy paper, Transmission Risk in the Hospitality Sector, sets out what I had assumed is the reason for this measure. “The disinhibitory effects of alcohol are likely to exacerbate difficulties with social distancing.” In other words, wet-led pub patrons are more likely to get inebriated and forget their social distancing obligations, despite all the pubs I’ve been in — and the one I work in — keeping a keen eye on customers and their actions.

As well as this, the policy paper points out:

  • It has only been possible to get the R number consistently below 1 in places where there have been substantial restrictions on hospitality
  • Japan, China, South Korea, and Indonesia noted that their largest superspreading events originated from pubs, clubs, restaurants, gyms, and wedding venues. The largest clusters in Hong Kong were associated with transmission in bars and at a wedding dinner, both locations in which face masks were not worn.
  • A report from the US found that those infected with SARS-CoV-2 without known close contact with a person with confirmed covid-19, case patients were 2.8 times more likely to report dining at a restaurant or 3.9 times more likely to report going to a bar or coffee shop than control participants.

Nik Antona, chief executive of the Campaign for Real Ale, said: “The research doesn’t consider the mitigating measures that have been introduced by pubs in the past few months, such as improving ventilation and social distancing. Furthermore, the government has yet to provide evidence the requirement to serve a ‘substantial meal’ will reduce transmission or any concrete evidence the responsible consumption of alcohol increases risk.”

On Twitter, Tim Foster, co-founder of Yummy Pub Co, was among many industry insiders to suggest flaws in the ‘evidence’. “This is an absolute disgrace. The UK hospitality sector is world class, it cannot be compared to these countries. Hong Kong? Has anyone actually been into a bar in Hong Kong? They are tiny! This is not evidence. This is four bullet points of assumptions.”

An article in The Guardian today highlights the plight of one particular pub, the Eagle and Child in Ramsbottom, near Bury, which specialises in hospitality apprenticeships. Landlord Glen Duckett says: “We’ll lose tens of thousands of pounds. It puts the business in a very vulnerable position. We still have to pay bills, even when we’re closed.” He calls the government’s restrictions “immoral”. “In a well-managed site that’s undergone a risk assessment, you are safer than in a supermarket where you can’t control people and there is no test and trace. Everyone will be able to pile into the Trafford [shopping] Centre, yet we have to remain closed.” The full article is here.

Tomorrow, the House of Commons will vote on the tier restrictions for England from Wednesday (2nd December). The measures are likely to get the vote, but several Conservative MPs are set to abstain or vote against the government, citing the restrictions as too severe. There’s a consensus that a lot of working class voters in the North ‘loaned’ their vote to the Conservatives at the last election, to “Get Brexit Done”. Those Northern Tories will be feeling the heat from constituents. The prime minister has, at least, come up with a sunset clause to the restrictions, saying they will end on 3rd February, 2020, unless MPs vote otherwise, and will be reviewed every fortnight up until then.

In an open letter to MPs, Youngs Pubs chief executive, Patrick Dardis, said: “Let’s not forget, the sector as a whole — including the wide supply chain (brewers, for example) — supports over six million jobs, contributes around £158bn to the UK economy, and generates over £70bn to the Treasury in taxes.” That’s an important sector, and the government needs to keep thos figures front of mind.

The sector needs to keep up lobbying pressure on government, and there are a number of petitions on the go at the moment to do just that. I’ve lent my name to some and I suggest you do, too. I think there’s a lot to be said for the power of individual representation to one’s MP, too, via a letter or email. Am I alone, though, in wondering if disparate petitions are less effective than one massive, industry-wide collection of signatures would be? Anyone think the same? Let me know.

Our hospitality industry is a huge employer, makes huge amounts of money for the Treasury, and, when overseas tourists can once again visit us en masse, provides a unique, world-class experience that I know all in our sector are proud of. Let’s hope there’s nothing more sinsister to the tough tier restrictions than a genuine wish to keep everyone as safe as possible. But we can’t allow the government to kill our Great British pubs. It can’t let our communities down.

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